Opening 13 Mar 2014
It’s the beginning of World War II. Liesel, her small brother and her mother are sitting in a train, then the brother dies, then Liesel, her mother and a pastor are holding the funeral in a graveyard, where Liesel steals her first book, The Gravediggers Handbook. Why not start with this book if you are illiterate to begin with? All of that in the first five minutes.
For some reason Liesel’s mother is shoved off somewhere, so that Liesel must spend the rest of the film from 1938 to 1945 with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann in a small village (actually filmed in Görlitz, Germany’s most eastern town in Saxony). She makes friends with Rudy who is good in sports. The Nazis check people’s basements, supposedly to evaluate accessibility in case of an air raid – something which causes a flurry in the Hubermann household since they have been sheltering a young Jewish man, Max Brandenburg, for many months. Liesel delivers the washing (extra income for Rosa) to Ilse Hermann, the wife of the mayor – a sad woman with a huge library of books. Interesting that none of her books seemed to have been destroyed in the book-burning ceremony held in the village market place by the German Student Association of Nazi Germany.
The Book Thief is an extremely successful book by Markus Zusak, originally printed in Australia in 2005, and now required reading in most schools. It is perhaps too powerful ever to make a convincing film, no matter how much a film can allow us to enhance our visualization of the book. This film is successful visually: the old-timer (1938) cars, the hideaway cellar with a whole dictionary of words painted on the walls, the kitchen with its Bunzlauer porcelain (filmed on set at Babelsberg Studios in Berlin), as well as prisoners marching through the village. Sophie Nélisse is fine as Liesel – not such an easy job, considering that she has to age six years in 131 minutes. Emily Watson (hardly recognizable as herself) as Rose and Geoffrey Rush as Hans actually steal the show; the story pivots on their talents. They keep their distance in the village and call people Saumensch (filthy pig – we would probably say “bitch”). I loved having them transport snow and a snow man into the cellar for the benefit of Max, who never sees the stars, much less snow, although the ensuing iciness causes him to become ill.
Having said that, I think that Barbara Auer as the mayor’s wife never gets to do justice to her roll, always sitting morosely looking at her dead son’s photo, whereas she has an important role, passing along books to Liesel. Once again we have nerve-racking plunk plunk music (John Williams), hard to believe considering that he composed for Star Wars, Harry Potter, Superman, you name it. Sometimes silence is the best. We can hope that this will not be the ultimate film version. Until then you might just re-read the book. Naturally, you’ve already read it at least once. Right? (Becky Tan)